Rock and Roll Book Club: Lily Allen's 'My Thoughts Exactly'

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Lily Allen.
Lily Allen. (Bella Howard, courtesy Warner Bros. Records)

Musicians often say they're writing "honest" memoirs, and there are a lot of things that can mean. Often, it means they're honestly telling you why they're still mad at their former bandmates or record labels. Sometimes, it's honestly writing about how miserable addiction was. If you're lucky, they admit that some of their music was less than 100% awesome.

Lily Allen's memoir is something different, and ultimately more important. As she notes in the introduction, at 33 she's too young for a definitive autobiography. There might have been a different kind of demand for a book a decade ago, when she was in her flush of first fame, but now she's at mid-career. Where does a book come in?

I am writing this so that if I died today, my daughters can learn from my mistakes, and so that whatever information they may stumble on about me (I imagine them as adolescents Googling my name), there will be a version in black and white that will not alter in the retelling. F--k, I'm writing this so that I can learn from my mistakes.

I am writing this to tell my story because telling stories is important, especially if you are a woman. When women share their stories, loudly and clearly and honestly, things begin to change — for the better. This is my story.

Allen's book, titled My Thoughts Exactly, would be important and fascinating reading for every popular music fan if only because of its relevance to the #MeToo movement, although it's much more than that. Allen describes being the victim of sexual assault (at the hands of an unnamed industry executive) and stalking (by a listener with mental health issues), but more broadly her memoir recounts the experience of being a woman in the world — and specifically in the public eye as a music celebrity.

Some of Allen's experience is common among popular artists generally, but at every turn, it's been colored by the fact that she's a woman. From childhood to the heights of stardom, she encounters men who feel they have more right than she does to tell her story, to shape her narrative and her image. Nor is this a memoir of the "golden god" era of Led Zeppelin, or even the swaggering '90s. Allen's career has taken place entirely in the 21st century. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The book unfolds with the same brand of fearlessness and self-awareness that's helped to made Allen a fascinating songwriter. Beyond her gift for melody and phrasing (and her jewel of a voice), Allen writes songs stocked with compelling detail and unapologetic attitude.

On her first album, Alright, Still (2006), that meant sardonic stories about her hometown ("LDN") and her disrespectful exes ("Smile"). It's Not Me, It's You (2009) chronicled a quarter-life crisis with sparkling ruminations on drugs ("Everyone's At It"), sex ("Not Fair"), and family relationships ("Back to the Start"). Sheezus (2014), although Allen has distanced herself from its overly polished, radio-hungry sound, was also hungry for a domestic bliss that, Allen's new book suggests, proved poignantly elusive.

Allen's new album, No Shame, has been hailed as her best yet, a quieter and more complexly confessional song cycle that landed on the Mercury Prize shortlist. Some of the praise, to my ears, reflects what's seen as a comeback story after the unfairly maligned Sheezus, but wherever you rank it in Allen's oeuvre, it's a remarkable work.

Though My Thoughts Exactly doesn't present itself as a let's-clear-this-up corrective, it does serve the purpose of documenting Allen's take on her much-discussed family history. Her father Keith Allen is a comedian and general man-about-the-entertainment-industry; her mother Alison Owen is a film producer. They moved in select social circles that included the likes of Damien Hirst and Neneh Cherry.

That, and Allen's elite-prep background, have earned her a silver-spoon tag that she writes is unfair. Yes, she went to some fancy schools...and was more or less asked to leave all of them. Yes, her parents were in the entertainment industry, but they were hardly the kind of players who could write her a blank check, and they were far from the kind of stage parents who obsess over their daughter's career. Rather, Allen writes, they were neglectful; while her dad helped land her first record deal, she argues that she's achieved success as much despite her parents as because of them.

The British tabloids have amply documented Allen's hard-partying life, but in My Thoughts Exactly, she reclaims her narrative. Minor incidents were blown up into brawls, and ordinary nights of drinking and dosing were portrayed as out-of-control benders. Paparazzi photos of Allen in various states of undress have made the rounds over the years, and she describes the perplexity of having an upskirt shot widely distributed.

If you were with me in real life you probably wouldn't have seen my vagina at all. It's not like I got it out. [...] I've got a vagina and there are lots of cameras in my life so that happens and it's not that important in the scheme of things, but on the other, it's disorienting, because it's hurtful when someone tells you to put your minge away in a national newspaper.

She goes on to write about the danger of letting others define your life for you. She describes "Cartoon Lily," the caricatured version of herself that became world-famous in the Alright, Still years. By the time of Sheezus, she had a more certain grip on her public image, but behind the scenes she was genuinely miserable. She recounts having affairs with both men and women (both Liam Gallagher and her then-tourmate Zoë Kravitz are mentioned, the latter much more flatteringly), bottoming out on drugs and alcohol.

This isn't a tidy tale, though. Allen doesn't blame her addictions for the demise of her seemingly bucolic marriage, nor does she blame her ex or, unduly, herself. The reality was messy, and she's still making her way through with eyes as clear as she can manage. Recounting the flap over her video for "Hard Out Here" — with Allen surrounded by diverse dancers who were seen by some as being objectified and/or appropriated — Allen explains the effect wasn't her intention, but acknowledges that she needed to learn more about intersectional feminism.

Along the way, Allen opens up about topics including money. She describes hanging out with the producer Mark Ronson and some male industry friends, none of whom (aside from Ronson himself) have her level of recognition, but all seemed more financially comfortable and confident. "This is how the music industry works," she recalls reflecting. "It's boys penising off against each other. That's how the deals get higher and higher."

The New York Times recently decried the demise of the long-form interview, pointing out that artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift shy away from allowing journalists to have significant access. While Allen is, in a sense, interviewing herself, the resulting book feels like the best kind of long-form interview. It's revealing, it's honest, and it acknowledges the complexities of fame and music and love.

When you're interviewing an artist, you often hope for that question that really makes your subject think, that they don't have a pat answer for. My Feelings Exactly is like the response to one big question that really made Lily Allen think. Now we have the answer, and it's the question that might be hard to come by. Whatever it is, it's one we should all ask ourselves.

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